Could Going Organic Save Iowa's Family Farms?

Cityview | June 28, 2007
Among the farmers who work the lush countryside that surrounds the town of Woodward, a half hour drive northwest of Des Moines, the owners of one small dairy farm have been an incessant topic of conversation. Jeff and Jill Burkhart, who own Picket Fence Creamery, are known for their ever-present brood of kittens, their herd of 80 coffee-colored Jersey dairy cows and their organic farming techniques that have allowed their family farm to thrive in tough economic conditions.

"If you've got a good stead of grass, you don't need chemicals," says Jeff Burkhart, who grew up on a conventional livestock and crop farm three miles from his land. "We're trying to be the example of what can be done."

Organic farming is regarded warily in Woodward -- and, indeed, by much of the conventional farming community in Iowa -- but it could be the best way to save the family farm from extinction. "Farming as a whole is under threat right now," says Laurie Groves, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau. "You can't do it when you've got 300 acres."

From 2000-2006, Iowa lost 5,400 farms, while at the same time the average size of a farm grew by 10 acres to 356. Observers say these numbers point to a trend toward "industrial farming," wherein farmers need at least 1,000 acres to survive. But some farmers are making more out of less. The number of organic farms, which average 141 acres in size, is on the rise. There were 332 organic farms in the state in 2000 and 453 by 2005, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Iowa is now fourth in country in the number of organic farms, behind California, Wisconsin and Washington. Despite the increase, organic farming represents only a fraction of the industry and barriers to its expansion remain.

Going organic

The 80 acres that Burkhart owns with his wife, Jill, were originally a conventional corn and soybean farm more than 20 years ago, he says. The couple bought the land and allowed it to return to pasture, which brought a myriad of comments not altogether friendly from their closely-knit neighbors.

"Twenty years ago, you're a hippie if you're organic farming," Burkhart recalls. "Friends kept saying, 'you can't do that, you can't do that.' Now, they're all bankrupt and out of business. It shows you can do that."

What the Burkharts did was stop using chemical fertilizers and weed killers on the land. They went back to basic farming techniques: tilling the soil for their corn crop, pulling thistle from their pasture and allowing their cows to graze on natural fields and organic hay. "The actual milking process isn't different [from a conventional farm,] it's how the cows live that’s different," he says. Going organic doesn't necessarily produce a higher yield of milk from the cows. "It produces a different kind of product, a better kind of product," Burkhart says. It's also a more expensive product. Picket Fence Creamery not only raises the cows, it bottles the milk and distributes it in Central Iowa. They're able to charge $3.25 for a gallon of milk, compared with a conventional producer that gets only $1, he says.

The trade off is Burkhart doesn't get as much milk from the cows. Using conventional dairy farming techniques, where the cows spend their lives in confinements and are fed corn instead of grass or hay, he says, "you get a lot of milk, but you’re ruining the cow." Burkhart's technique allows his cows to live longer. The average age of a cow on a conventional farm is 33 months, he says. Whereas, "a lot of our cows are 10, 12,14 years old."

While Burkhart uses organic farming techniques to raise his cows, his farm isn't certified organic, he says. "We could easily be certified organic; we haven't used chemicals on our farm for 15 years." The process, however, is too long and too costly. "It's tons of paper work, and we've already got tons of paper work," he says, adding, "We're already selling everything that the cows can produce."

The bar to be certified as "organic" is leveled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which set a federal guideline in 2002. There are three categories of "organic" food, which must be labeled accordingly. The highest is "100 percent organic," which means the food is free of chemicals and "produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations," according to the USDA website. "Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones." The second level is simply "organic," which means the food must be produced from ingredients that are 95 percent organic. For a producer to make the claim "made with organic ingredients," which is the third designation, the ingredients must be 70 percent organic. The USDA does not say that organic produce is "safer or more nutritious," but its avid consumers claim it is.

"I don't want to add all those chemicals to my body, and I don't like them to be added to the environment," says Cindy Raife, who co-owns New City Market, a natural foods store in Des Moines. "I raised three children [on organic food], and they're very healthy." The taste of organic food is also a factor, she adds. "If I eat conventional produce, I can taste the difference," Raife says. Determining what food is considered "organic" isn't handled federally, or by taste test.

State departments of agriculture and private monitoring firms are the ones who grant organic farmers their certification. The process works like this: After a farm has been chemical free for three years, the farmer applies to be certified and pays a $75 fee. Then there’s a $250 inspection fee for an inspector to go out to the farm, and then a certification fee of about $4 per acre (it varies based on the crop). The inspection fee must be paid each year when the farm gets re-inspected. "It takes a lot of time, a lot of staff and a lot of work," says Maury Wills, who manages the organic program of the department of agriculture.

Consumers don't have to worry about the legitimacy of an "organic" claim on a product's label, Wills says. The regulation of the organic industry is "really, really, really tight. Trying to find an organic product on the shelf in the supermarket that's not really organic is truly impossible to do." A company can be fined up to $10,000 a day by the USDA if it's caught violating the organic labeling rules, he says.

Some critics of organic farming say the use of manure for fertilizer, in place of chemicals, is dangerous. The recent E. coli-tainted spinach scare came from a California crop that had been fertilized with manure. Wills dismisses those concerns. "Organic farming is the only type of farming where the use of manure is regulated," he says. On organic farms, manure cannot be applied at least four months before the crop is harvested and cannot be applied on frozen ground. "The concern people have had is making sure the regulations are safeguarded and implemented as they're written," he says.

Burkhart says it's possible to follow the letter of the organic regulation, while violating its spirit.

"We know there's people out there cheating," he says. "They're following the rules technically but not conceptually." The USDA stipulates that livestock must have access to outdoor exercise areas, shade, shelter, fresh air and direct sunlight "suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment." But some certified organic dairy farms keep cows mainly in confinements, while getting certified as organic because the farmer feeds them organic feed, Burkhart says. "The cows belong in their natural environment, not in a building where they can't see the natural world." The growth of the organic industry could make it difficult to maintain those standards.

Organic farming has grown by about 20 percent per year in the last decade and is now an industry worth more than $10 billion annually, according to a report by Iowa State University researchers. There are now multi-million dollar organic enterprises. Horizon Organic, for example, has organic farms with more than 1,000 head of cattle. "Our family farms range in size from 12 to 1,500 cows, while our two operations in Maryland and Idaho are at 500 and 4,000, respectively," Sara Unrue, a spokeswoman for Horizon Organic, wrote in an email. "We believe organic is about how to increase organic production and organic cultivation. If done correctly, size doesn't matter."

Organics are just good business, says Kathleen Delate, an organics specialist at ISU. "We've shown you can get higher returns from organic production," and that translates into higher profits for the farmers.

Ron Rosmann, who owns Rosmann Family Farms with his wife, Maria, and three sons, says that farmers can earn 100 percent more per acre from organic crops compared to conventional crops. Rosmann operates a 600-acre certified organic farm near Harlan and raises soybeans, corn, oats, barley, peas and alfalfa in addition to beef cattle and pigs. He is able to get $8 per acre for organic corn, double what a conventional corn crop would yield, he says. For his organic soybeans, he earns $15 per acre compared with about $7 for conventional.

"I think organics can save the family farm because it's the best way for young people to get involved in agriculture," because the start up costs are lower, he says. But even as the benefits of organic farming become more evident, Rosmann says he doubts many of the older farmers will adopt the techniques.

"It's so different from how farmers farm now that there's a tremendous learning curve," he says, adding, "It's a risk, that's what scares a lot of these farmers."

Delate, who has also researched farming in California and Florida, says farming is a conservative culture, and traditional concerns like controlling weeds are part of the barrier to switching to organic. "You will have weeds in organic farming, more weeds than your conventional neighbor," she says. Still, Delate is hopeful more Iowa farmers will go organic. Iowa has idyllic growing conditions, which makes switching to organic farming easier here compared with other states, Delate says. "Our goal is to increase organic production by 20 percent in the next four years."

Certified organic

Rosmann had his farm certified organic because, in addition to supplying Campbell's Nutrition stores in Central Iowa, he sells his products outside the state. "There has to be more proof you’re organic as opposed to confidence in one-to-one relationships," he says. Other organic farmers think that it's the one-on-one relationships that are key to the success of the industry.

"People are looking for personal connections, and they can find a little of that through food," says Jill Burkhart, 47, who co-owns Picket Fence Creamery. Their farm hosts 10,000 visitors a year, she says. "People can come and get a glimpse of where their food comes from." They can also shop at the Burkhart’s store, which stocks produce and baked goods made by 85 Iowa families. "The localness is the strong point to us, over the organic certification. Even if a product has that organic symbol on it, you might not know where it came from," she says.

The Burkharts say farmers shouldn't just practice organic farming techniques but should also sell their products locally and connect with the local economy. Organic farming "has more to do with locality -- bridging the gap between farmer and community," Jill Burkhart says.

Jeff Burkhart, 45, says the creamery has reached maximum capacity, but he has no plans to expand production because it would be difficult to maintain the same standards. Besides, the smaller farm is the way of the future, he says. "Let's create the economic situation that promotes more smaller farms -- a million, 80-acre dairy farms. Look at all the people that can be employed that way."

Burkhart says he hopes more farmers will follow their model. "The demand was even bigger than what we thought it was," he says. "We know there’s room for other families to do this."


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